Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Livemint
Land is the most precious commodity in Mumbai. We have seen, read and heard about scams of thousands of crores in this city over land. Now there another possible scam in making in Mumbai, this time with the help of the state government. Let's look at the background of the new alleged scandal.
In 2007, the Maharashtra government repealed the Urban Land Ceilings (ULC) Act, 1976. There were thousands of companies in Maharashtra which had extra land under ULC Act. As per Section 20 of the ULC Act, it was compulsory for the state government to take back extra land from companies that shut down operations. Anything more than 500 square meters was extra in Mumbai's context. In the order given by Bombay High Court's full bench on September 3, 2014, it had said that the rule on taking extra land from companies was applicable even after the repeal of ULC Act. The court even asked the state government to use the land for housing for the poor. The said land was approximately 2,808 hectares.
The unambiguous court order was in a way a triumph for citizens who were looking for affordable housing. Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has assured every Indian of a personal home by 2022 under the affordable housing scheme. But, in reality, the Maharashtra government has taken an opposite stance that threatens the possibility of affordable housing in Mumbai.
Despite clear orders to take control of the entire 2,808 hectares of land in Mumbai, the Maharashtra government sat on it for two years. Meanwhile, the matter went to the Supreme Court (SC). The Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI), which was one of the respondents in the Bombay HC case, approached the SC against the 2014 order. While admitting the special leave petition (SLP), the SC issued an interim injunction stating that no coercive steps should be taken. This gave the Maharashtra government an opportunity to not do anything for some time. The MCHI’s appeal in SC came up for hearing in 2015 when the Maharashtra government filed an affidavit declaring that MCHI had no locus standi in the case. Interestingly, in parallel parleys, MCHI 'approached' the state government to find a way out in such a situation.
Here came the U-turn by the state government. The Maharashtra government, which had said in the SC in 2015 that MCHI did not have locus standi in the case, came with new affidavit in SC. This is in 2019. This time, the state government said it had agreed to the consent terms with MCHI and that the SLP should be settled. The government, which had first said that the builders’ body has no locus standi, is now saying that it has reached an agreement with the same body!
What happened between those four years -- from 2015 to 2019 -- that gave cover to the state government from facing criticism? In July 2017, the Maharashtra government appointed a commission to look into the cases related to Section 20 of the ULC Act, 1976. There were many such pending cases. Retired SC justice BN Srikrishna was appointed for the commission, with another member, a retired IAS officer BN Makhija.
This Srikrishna commission submitted its report in 2018 and recommend that the state government “sell the land under ULC Section 20” with "single premium price". The state government, which had not acted on the Bombay HC order in 2014 to take control of 2,808 hectares of land, immediately acted on these recommendations. It accepted the commission’s report in a cabinet meeting on November 16, 2018. On this basis, it came with 'consent terms' with MCHI on February 8, 2019. The state government informed the SC on February 26, 2018 about its consent terms with MCHI and requested disposal of the case.
This eagerness of the state government in accepting the recommendations that are seen to be in favour of real estate sharks, is questionable. Nivara Abhiyan, a Mumbai's civil society group fighting for affordable houses, has appealed in the Supreme Court as well as Bombay High Court. Vishwas Utagi, general secretary of Nivara Abhiyan, said, "There was no need to appoint the commission. Second, even though it made recommendations on selling land, the state government should have rejected it. The Bombay HC's full bench had clearly given a verdict in favour of taking control of all the land under ULC and use it for affordable houses for the poor. In this case, the state government worked for the benefit of corporate builders instead of poor Mumbaikars. This is a clear contempt of the Bombay High Court."
Utagi, who is also convenor of Trade Union Workers Joint Action Committee, said one of the workers went to the SC to oppose the consent terms between the state government and MCHI. The SC heard the arguments of workers on March 27, 2019 and then observed that since the decision of Bombay HC was given by a three-member bench, the case in SC should also be heard by a three-member bench. So, the matter is now waiting for the formation of a three-member bench.
Around 70 lakh Mumbaikars are eligible for affordable housing, according to Nivara Abhiyan. The price of 2,808 hectares of land runs into thousand and thousands of crores. Despite the clear rights of common Mumbaikars on this land, the state government is trying to sell it to the builders’ body.
"People should join hands and hit the street. The double talk over advertisements for affordable houses and actual working stands expose. People should unite to not lose their rights over the land," said Utagi, who said he would be filing a contempt case against the Maharashtra government in the Bombay HC in the second week of June.
Responding to questions senr by Newsclick, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said: “In the last many years, the state government didn't get any share from ULC. In most of the cases, third party rights have been created and multiple judgements gave back land to owner on the ground that actual possession was not taken. On paper, we see houses coming, but in reality, since the Act commenced, we got nothing or very little. After lots of deliberations, the government decided to appoint the Justice Srikrishna Commission which gave its report after giving public notice and hearing all views. The state government accepted this report and has filed its decision in the Supreme Court. Instead of a fight in court in every single case and losing years through this solution, the state will have resources to create affordable houses and will be able to provide housing in the next five years.”